DON’T PANIC! WHAT TO DO WHEN YOUR FRIEND IS HAVING A PANIC ATTACK
By Aoife Casson
Having a panic/anxiety attack is a pretty horrible thing, but it can be just as bad for the loved ones who want to help but don’t have the faintest idea what’s going on. Here are 5 key things to do if that situation arises, as well as some helpful tips for avoiding the tired phrases that don’t help anyone.
1. Remove them from the room
Often, a panic/anxiety attack is offset by a person’s surroundings, so the most important thing to do first is to move them to another room; preferably a quiet room without anyone in there. This will help in two ways. One being that the person won’t be so overwhelmed by their senses, and two being that, for many people, a panic attack can be quite embarrassing, and they would rather their emotional instability (however temporary) is not broadcast across an entire room of people.
2. Make sure they’re not actually having a heart attack
This one may seem a little strange to someone who has never experienced a panic/anxiety attack themselves, but they have many of the same symptoms as a heart attack; difficulty breathing, faster heartbeat, sweating, numbness/tingly feelings in the hands and feet, dizziness and general confusion just to name a few. If you know that your friend is prone to panic/anxiety attacks, or you specifically know what set them off, then you should be ok, but if you have even a shadow of a doubt, it is always best to call an ambulance. A panic attack can be easily treated, but it’s not worth the risk if it is indeed a heart attack.
3. Get them a glass of water
Once you can be sure that you are ok to leave them and that they will not unintentionally harm themselves, go and get them a glass of water - better still, ask someone to fetch one for you. It may be a small thing, but a glass of cool water can make all the difference in taking the edge off, as well as providing a welcome distraction and something for the person to focus their attention on.
4. Talk to them
Talk to anyone who has ever experienced a panic attack and they will tell you a list of useless and annoying phrases that they hear time and time again. Phrases like “Don’t panic!”, “Calm down a little bit”, “Don’t be so silly”, “Just breath”, “Have you tried meditation?”, “Can you explain to me what set you off?”. Don’t be like that. No one actually wants to experience a panic/anxiety attack, and if we could just “not panic” and “calm down”, then that would be fine and dandy, but it’s not quite as simple as that. We know it’s irrational and we know that we’re supposed to be breathing, but in that moment, we also feel like we’ve lost control of the world around us or like everything is crashing in on us, and us telling you what set us off is only going to make us panic even more. We know you’re trying to help, but the best things to say are calming phrases such as “It’s all going to be ok”, “Take all the time you need”, “I’m right here with you”, “You’re safe here”. Another thing that can work is distraction from the whole situation. I’ve found that a lot of the time, when a friend is calming me down, the thing that works the best is when they start rambling about their day, or telling me a funny thing that happened. It may feel like you’re not helping, but allowing us to focus on something else can really make a difference.
5. Offer them a hug (but only if they want one)
Listen, everyone is different. Some people like physical contact, some people don’t. I know that when I’m having a panic/anxiety attack, I don’t want anyone to touch me, but I also know that some people like a comforting hand on the back or maybe even a hug. Obviously, don’t bombard them with questions, but a simple “Would you like a hug?” or “Are you ok if I touch you?” gives them a little bit of control as well as the option of physical contact if that’s what they find comforting. But like I said, don’t force it.